You’ve discovered the hidden job market within the beauty industry and learned how to build your beauty career from the ground up. Now, to back up our advice and provide proof of a real-world success story, we’ve interviewed a highly successful beauty industry veteran who started at the bottom, right on the sales floor.
Trae Bodge is an accomplished lifestyle journalist and TV commentator who specializes in smart shopping, beauty, tech, apps, toys, and gift guides. She broke into the beauty industry by working on the floor for smaller, independent brands, then quickly transitioned to the Kiehl’s counter at Bergdorf Goodman and moved up from there.
She has appeared on dozens of TV shows and radio networks, including Inside Edition, CNBC.com, and Sirius Radio. Trae contributes to several online publications, has served as a judge on product-awards panels, and has been featured as a beauty tastemaker in Elle, Redbook, InStyle, and Essence. She is also a sought-after brand strategist and co-founder of the cult cosmetic brand Three Custom Color Specialists.
Read on to learn more about her journey in the beauty industry, as well as her career advice for those who want to follow in her footsteps.
Thank you for agreeing to share your career advice with us! So, why the beauty industry? Tell us a bit about how you first broke into the field.
My love of the beauty industry began with my mom. When I was a kid, she had her own beauty boutique. I was always there, getting into things; slicing and packaging bar soaps, scenting lotions, mixing fragrances, and eventually working at the counter and helping with the buying.
What was your dream job when you first started? How did that change over time?
I feel like I’ve loved beauty products my whole life and always wanted to do something in the beauty industry. As a teen, I was very interested in hairdressing and makeup artistry, and I would cut my friends’ hair and do their makeup – Punk and New Wave were our thing, so I didn’t have to be that good!
I went to art school for a bit and then started working for Visage Beaute in Massachusetts and then in NYC at Bergdorf Goodman. Visage was a wonderful, short-lived brand that focused on custom blending. Hand-making makeup for customers and showing them how to apply it married my love of color and makeup artistry. Visage, which was originally independently owned, grew very quickly and was bought by Revlon. The brand took a corporate turn, and I knew I had to move on. I had had my eye on Kiehl’s for a while – they also had a counter at Bergdorf. I started calling their flagship store every month or so, asking if they needed help. Finally, when they did, they called ME!
What did starting out on the sales floor at Kiehl’s teach you about the beauty industry?
Things could be very different now, because Kiehl’s was independently-owned at that time, but what I took with me was the importance of good customer service, products that had a real story, and PR. And work ethic without ego. I had always worked hard, but Kiehl’s had a uniquely level playing field. No matter what positions we held, we all cleaned the bathrooms, worked at the counter, filled samples, and shipped packages.
What do you consider to big your first ‘big break’?
Kiehl’s presented a unique opportunity for those of us who were entrepreneurial. If you saw something that needed attention, that you felt you were qualified to tackle, the owners were open to that. When I started there, we only took a few mail orders a day, but that part of the business grew rapidly and I proposed taking it on. At a very young age, I became a Director there, running all aspects of “catalog services”. To have the opportunity to create something from scratch like that provided a foundation for what I would do later.
How were you able to leverage your retail experience in building your career at Kiehl’s and, later, in starting your own company, Three Custom Color Specialists?
My partners and I – one of whom also worked at Kiehl’s – used the storytelling, customer service, quality products, and hard work that we learned at Kiehl’s and applied it to our own business.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned from working in retail?
Treat everyone well, even the difficult ones! And never assume anything about a customer, or treat a customer differently, based on how they are dressed.
If you could start over again, what would you have done differently (if anything at all)?
I would have pursued my BA. While I’ve always eventually achieved what I set out to do, I feel like I could have progressed more quickly had I had more years of schooling under my belt. An education in business would have served me well.
Also, the lack of a degree became an issue when I was looking for a job after I left Three Custom Color Specialists. A degree is a requirement for certain positions, so I feel like I had fewer opportunities to choose from.
Which skills should an employee focus on if their goal is to work on the business end of the beauty industry?
Focus on your education and pursue as many internships as you can. The internships are essential because a) boots-on-the-ground experience will help you pinpoint what disciplines suit you and b) relationships in this industry are highly valuable. The more people you meet and positively impact, the more opportunities will come your way.
What advice would you provide to someone who has big goals, but feels stuck in their career?
Let your superiors know that you are interested in progressing. They can’t help you if they don’t know you need it. Also, watch those who are senior to you and learn from them. And if someone gives you constructive feedback, take it graciously. They’re probably doing you a favor.
Wallflowers remain on the wall, so listen, think, be creative, and let your voice be heard. If you have an idea, share it.
Don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself. Set your sights on a goal and make moves to get there.
You’ve become somewhat of an authority on lifestyle products – how did you make the transition from a more traditional career to the newer role of ‘influencer’?
Thank you – but I actually don’t consider myself to be an influencer. To me, influencers are in a very specific category of people who have what it takes to be wildly popular on social media. While influencers were becoming influencers – putting in all that hard work to grow their social platforms – I was working at RetailMeNot as their spokesperson and senior lifestyle editor. I understood that social media was important, but didn’t have the time to dedicate to it. By the time I was laid off in mid-2015, I felt like I had already missed the influencer boat, or was at least woefully behind. And who knows if I even have/had what it takes to achieve influencer status!
My lack of influencer chops was a big concern of mine as I began navigating my new career as a freelance smart shopping expert. And sure, I have probably missed out on a bunch of opportunities because I don’t have off-the-charts social numbers, but I have also found that my years of experience have their own value.
Instead of influencer opportunities, I am presented with opportunities that suit my skill set, and I am set up to succeed. I feel like I’m in a niche which is quite small, but highly necessary for certain brands. I love what I do and feel like I bring a lot of value to the brands I partner with.
To answer your question about the product expertise – that developed naturally through my work. When I left Three Custom Color, I thought that I wanted to work in product development or in marketing for a large beauty brand. I interviewed a lot, but had very few offers, which was super frustrating. Thinking back, the feedback across the board was very similar: people couldn’t see me fitting into one role, which presented a problem for them. I eventually realized that I needed to find a position that was entrepreneurial, rather than already established. While I was interviewing, a friend offered me a freelance writing gig for Mainstreet.com, writing budget-focused lifestyle content – gift guides, how to save, etc. – which is where I honed my skills in testing and writing about products. Then, a similar, but broader freelance gig at RetailMeNot came along. I did that for a year and then, when I noticed that they were dabbling in broadcast media, I offered my assistance. I had TV experience from my time with Three Custom Color and I was already writing for the brand. It turned out that they were looking to create a position that involved writing, PR/marketing, and TV, which was the perfect blend for me!
How does your retail background factor into your product recommendations and the content that you share with your audience?
It’s always been important to me to stand behind what I am selling, so I want to try everything. This has driven some of my editors crazy, but I can’t wrap my head around writing about chocolate I haven’t tasted or a face cream that I haven’t tried.
What qualities do you consider when evaluating potential business ventures?
The brand/product has to be something I can stand behind. I have turned a fair bit of work down because I don’t like/trust/believe in the product or services.
And this may seem silly, but I don’t want to work with people who aren’t nice. I think when you’re younger, you do sometimes need to suck it up and work with people you’d rather not, but I’m not doing that anymore. If I am presented with an opportunity and sense that someone I would be working closely with has made a career out of being contrary, will be impossible to please, or is just plain rude, I’m out. The only time I will put up with that is if this person represents a brand I really like and if it’s a one-off thing. I contemplate long-term relationships very carefully. Self-preservation is more important to me than money at this stage in my career.
Who/what has served as your inspirations throughout your career?
My friends who I have made through my work. I’ll share a piece of advice here – surround yourself with amazing people. They will inspire you, lift you up, and open doors for you. But you must be willing to give at least as much as you receive. It’s a circle – you look out for others and they will do so for you. And related to that – don’t discard people because they are no longer useful to you. I see people do this all the time. They reach a level in their careers where they think they are too important for certain people in their lives. This is not only an example of being a bad human, but it’s also impractical. Your SVP-level job could end tomorrow and that mid-level executive friend you stepped on years ago could have become a CEO of a great company. Whoops.
What is the most memorable piece of advice you’ve received about working in the beauty industry?
This applies to working in any industry, really, and it is advice that I’ve received and given in equal measure – it’s simply to believe in yourself. Confidence in your own value is essential, as it doesn’t only create opportunity, but it also protects you when someone tries to knock you down.
Glenn Laumeister is an experienced technology leader who is currently the CEO of AllWork, a platform for brands and retailers to find, manage and pay retail talent.